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Pedestrian deaths increased during the pandemic

The grim numbers mirror the surprising increase in highway traffic fatalities

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Photo (c) Alessandro Scagliusi EyeEm - Getty Images
There’s more evidence that the steep reduction in people on the road during the pandemic last year didn’t make highways any safer.

Not only did traffic deaths from car crashes increase, but a new report from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) estimates that the U.S. pedestrian fatality rate rose 20 percent in the first half of 2020. The numbers for the second half of the year have not yet been analyzed.

The report was compiled by breaking down state data gathered by individual state governments. The analysis shows that 2,957 pedestrians were killed from January through June last year.

This occurred despite the fact that motorists traveled 16.5 percent fewer miles during that period, which included business closings and shelter-in-place orders. During that six-month period, the rate at which drivers struck and killed pedestrians jumped to 2.2 deaths per billion vehicle miles traveled (VMT). That’s a significant increase from 1.8 deaths during the same period in 2019.

“Walking should not be a life and death undertaking, yet many factors have combined to put pedestrians at historical levels of risk,” said GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins. “The traffic safety community should focus on a comprehensive approach that uses every tool available to save lives, including engineering, community outreach, emergency response and equitable enforcement that prioritizes the prevention of driving behaviors – like speeding, distraction and impairment – that pose the greatest threats to non-motorized road users.”

Drivers have been less safe during the pandemic

Safety experts suggest that the increase in deaths behind the wheel and while walking comes from the same source. They say significant drops in traffic caused too many drivers to drive faster and be less attentive.

As we recently reported, the National Safety Council’s preliminary traffic death count for 2020 also showed a surprising increase. In a year when accidents, injuries, and deaths should have been dramatically lower because of the pandemic, 42,060 people are estimated to have died on American highways in 2020. That’s an 8 percent increase over 2019.

The National Safety Council also found that there was less traffic last year, with miles driven plunging by 13 percent. Despite that, the preliminary estimated rate of death spiked by 24 percent over the previous 12-month period. According to National Safety Council data, that’s the largest increase since 1924, when Americans were just learning to drive.

Besides speed, distracted driving may also be contributing to both highway and pedestrian deaths. The GHSA report notes that pedestrian deaths have been rising since 2010, a time when smartphones began to proliferate. 

The number of pedestrians killed after being hit by a vehicle fell from 8,096 in 1979 to 4,109 in 2009, but it has risen every year since then.

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